Visit old Scandinavia in the streets of Oslo
Walking through history
In Oslo today, there are currently about 3,000 streets and roads, each with its own unique name. Most were given their names after 1878 in connection with rapid urban expansion in the industrial age. In East Oslo, there are several streets named after Scandinavian cities.
In 1885, there were Swedes who stated Sverigesgate, Sweden’s Street, was their home address. At least one of them was my grandfather, Axel Andersson. Sverigesgate still exists today, but one might wonder, where is Finland’s Street, Finlandsgate?
At the end of the 1880s, cultural nation-building was in full swing in Norway. The University of Oslo was built, and Aasmund Olavsson Vinje’s efforts to promote landsmål, what we today know as the nynorsk language, were underway. Then in 1905, Norway gained its independence from Sweden. In general, this period was a time of major construction, and there was a need for street names. Often, an area would get a name with surrounding “kinships,” for example, Danmarksgate, Denmark’s Street, is surrounded by streets with names from other Nordic nations.
In 1879, as many as 197 street names were designated. The selection of names may appear to have been random, however, there are two features of the street names from the year 1879 that are remarkable. One is a completely new group of names borrowed from geographical locations, and the other is that these geographical names are found in specific parts of the city of Oslo.
Entire districts, such as Moløkken and Bjølsenjordet, had all their streets named after Norwegian cities, while in the Rodeløkken neighborhood, many streets were named after Swedish and Danish places. Finally, a number of streets in the Kampen and Vålerenga neighborhoods were named after villages in eastern Norway.
Signs keep the past alive
In Oslo, blue enamel signs keep the past alive, as they tell something about the role the street has played in the city’s history. I grew up on Danmarksgate, a stone’s throw from Vålerenga Church. The street that got its name in connection with the city expansion in 1879. Today, the neighborhood consists of colorful wooden houses preserved from the 19th century.
Across the street from where I lived, in No. 41, Synnøve Finden started a cheese factory in 1928. There is a sign outside that says that Synnøve Finden started cheese production on May 12, 1928, especially known for pultosten, a type of cream cheese.
The poet Rudolf Nilsen has also got his own sign at nearby Orknøygata 6, named after the Orkney Islands archipelago off the northeastern coast of Scotland.
The same year, Opplandsgata got its name. It is a county that did not get a name until 1919, so it wasn’t settlers from Oppland who were behind the name.
In Alf Folmer’s footsteps
If you ask Alf Folmer about Oslo streets signs and names, the 100-year-old author from Rodeløkka will refer you to his book Gutten fra sjokoladefabrikken: Erindringer om liv og lukt på Grünerløkka (The Boy from the Chocolate Factory: Memories of Life and Aromas in Grünerløkka) from 2016:
“Olaf thought about starting up for himself. He also bet and won on the wave of speculation in 1895, when several blocks on the east and west city limits were developed. Dælenengen got its tenancies and industries. There were straight streets and apartment buildings with a dairy shop on the corner. The streets were named after Scandinavian cities: Københavngata (Copenhagen Street), Gøteborggata (Gothenberg Street), Karlstadgata (Karlstad Street), and Stockholmsgata (Stockholm Street).”
It is in Folmer’s footsteps in Rodeløkka in Grünerløkka and in Vålerenga that I follow in my own Swedish grandfather’s footsteps, in an area where the relationship between street names and places is clear. Looking through family notes, I learned that my grandfather had lived for a time on Sverigesgate before he bought an apartment on Danmarksgate, where my father was born in 1929.
I met up with Folmer at Københavngata 11 in Rodeløkka. The Stockholm-based architect grew up here. Folmer made his debut as a writer at the age of 95, but earlier in his career, he had been involved in planning the city of Stockholm. He worked on the development of the city’s greenbelt suburbs, and he has always had an interest in the Oslo urban landscape and its history.
Folmer told me that his father had been a sailor and once traveled to the South Pole during the time of exploration at the beginning of the 20th century. He also told me that, like my father, he had to jump on a cargo truck and flee to Sweden during World War II.
Today, Københavngata 11 is a hotel, but when Folmer arrived there in 1925, there was a chocolate factory, Bergene Chocolate, built in 1898 during the construction boom. It existed until 1990 and had up to 500 employees. In December 2010, the building was purchased by the Anker Foundation and was converted into student housing and hotels.
Folmer reminisces about the old factory: “In the middle of the factory, space had been made for apartments for the workers. You could mostly walk straight from bed and to work. There were 84 people living on the block. I was one of them and knew all the others. The older people have talked about those who lived on the block from the time it was built. Several worked outside the factory. Many did not have jobs at all.”
From 1955 to 1961, the tram had a reversing loop in Københavngata, which forms a square with Gøteborggata, Malmøgata and Karlstadgata. Here you passed the Freia block.
The housing standard at the old Freia block was good by the standards of the time, but over time, pollution darkened the building’s bricks. In the novel Ulvehiet (The Wolf’s Den) from 1981, Oskar Bråten writes: “The façade is not whitewashed as on the other blocks, the bare bricks have lost their red color, they have absorbed too much moisture and smoke and fog, soot and dust have penetrated them, they have become black.”
Later, the blocks of houses in this area got decorative façades. An architect’s magazine explained that “a good and rich decor on the house is there for people’s emotional life. A strongly decorated façade … stimulates the residents’ senses and imagination, which is important for those who live in the house daily.”
Ellen Røsjø, a senior adviser at the National Archives of Norway, writes that most name proposals went smoothly through the city council without any lengthy discussion. But there could be long debates in some cases, especially if the name was not “nice enough” for the district.
Røsjø explains: “Many of the street names had to be designated without any local anchoring. This happened in the form of the streets on Bjølsen being named after Norwegian cities, while Nordic cities were named on the northern part of Dælenenga (Karlstadgata) and eastern Norwegian village names in the Kampen and Rosendal neighborhoods. We got names from neighboring countries for streets in Vålerenga and Norse god names on streets in Frogner.”
Sverigesgate on Vålerenga, which got its name in 1879, runs like an arm from Danmarksgate and a new arm, Hjaltlandsgata. The latter got its name from the Norse for the Shetland Islands in 1896. Islandsgate (Iceland Street) was named in 1891 and runs parallel to Danmarksgate,but consists of brick yards. One of the shortest streets, Orknøygata,.was named in 1897, although the Orkney Islands were not an independent country.
Here, there were blocks of –houses. There were outdoor toilets in the backyards, stables for horses, and several families lived in each house.
The street names reflect that this part of Oslo, which was called Kristiania until 1925, took in laborers from other parts of the country, in addition to immigrants from other countries. Many Norwegians from this area have grown up with Swedish-speaking grandparents, great-grandparents, and to some extent, parents. Many keep in touch with Norway’s neighboring country, even a Swede, who grew up in Danmarksgate, and not Sverigesgate.
And where is Finlandsgate? If you were to ask Oslo City Museum about where Finlandsgate went, they might answer that this may indicate that there were simply no streets needing names when Finland became independent in 1918.
All photos by Tove Andersson
This article originally appeared in the July 8, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.